The People Need To Know

Reading Time: 4 minutes

“Stuyvesant? I don’t know what that is,” she said, blushing.

I repeat it in Spanish in case other parents at our presentation don’t understand either.

She turns to her daughter. “Mija, do you know?”

She doesn’t.

I’m at an outreach presentation, trying to recruit students for RISE, a program created and run by Black and Latinx Stuyvesant students in order to fight the educational inequality in NYC’s public school system.

As I look into the little girl’s eyes, I realize I’m looking at myself five years ago, a time when I didn’t know what specialized high schools were.

I always assumed I’d spend four years confined to my neighborhood high school, but in the seventh grade I discovered everyone had been prepping for something called the SHSAT, a mysterious exam you took in order to attend a Specialized High School (another concept that was new to me). In fact, some of my peers had been prepping for years!

I felt left out of a big secret.

I was aware that private prep would put a dent in my parents’ pockets (they’re both Honduran immigrants who didn’t know about Specialized High Schools either), so I attempted to prep on my own by buying a book online, only to discover I apparently needed to read several books to understand the complex math and grammar I was reading about.

Further research led me to find out about the free prep classes my school offered, but to my dismay, I found them to be brief, broad, and basic.

And by then I was running out of time.

The SHSAT was only a month away.

I came clean to my parents and told them about the test and why I needed to prep. They were stunned when they realized how expensive private prep was, but agreed to let me do it.

Less than three weeks later, I took the SHSAT.

I passed.

To this day I wonder why the SHSAT remains a mystery to people of underrepresented communities. Black and Latinx students seem unaware of the existence of Specialized High Schools in NY, increasing the educational inequality throughout New York City’s education system.

There are eight specialized high schools in New York City, as well as other prestigious high schools such as Bard, Beacon, and Townsend Harris. These institutions provide students with countless opportunities, such as access to modern facilities, more rigorous education, and potential internships that look great on college applications.

According to The New York Times, an abundance of students in underrepresented communities are unaware of the fact that specialized high schools exist and have no resources to assist them in the process. In November 2019, the paper reported White parents had paid $200 for a local admissions consultant’s newsletter consisting of reminders and advice. The newsletter also included a tip advising them to arrive up to two hours early to the Beacon open house, leaving tens of thousands of eligible families out of the picture, and underrepresented and working families at the end of the line.

Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, schools continue to be segregated.

Specialized High Schools offer an abundance of resources and opportunities for their students, and yet there are schools in the Bronx that are predominantly Black and Latinx that are highly policed and have very few social workers and guidance counselors, highlighting a clear disparity across the system. Black and Latinx enrollment in Specialized High Schools has plummeted over the last 40 years, with Stuyvesant dropping from 14 percent to four percent, Brooklyn Tech from 50 percent to 14 percent, and the Bronx High School of Science from 23 percent to nine percent. The rates keep dropping.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has attempted to provide solutions to this segregation and educational inequality. However, this hasn’t been effective: only seven Black students were accepted into Stuyvesant last year, and the combined percentage of Black and Latinx students in the school makes up just about four percent in a school of over 3,000.

In 2019, Black and Latinx students got only 10 percent of the offered seats at these schools.

These numbers are unacceptable.

Many argue that eliminating the SHSAT or test prep centers will get rid of these disparities, but this ignores the bigger issue at hand: the lack of opportunities and resources in poorer and underrepresented neighborhoods, and the lack of knowledge of and preparation for the test. Eliminating the test ignores that and continues to deprive children in those communities of the resources they need. The city has recently approved millions of dollars for prisons and MTA regulation, so why can’t it do the same for underfunded elementary and middle schools?

I carried the guilt of making my parents pay for prep all the way to high school. Why did I get to go to Stuyvesant while my neighborhood friends were attending zone schools with little to no resources and slim prospects of a future? Why was I looking into competitive colleges when my friends didn’t even know if they could graduate?

Many of my Black and Latinx friends in schools like Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech also shared this guilt.

But the guilt had nothing on my imposter syndrome. Sitting in classes or walking in the halls and seeing no one who looked like me made me doubt my own capabilities, and whether people who looked like me truly belonged in this environment. Added to this, there was a constant barrage of microaggressions coming from White and Asian students: being asked who I had cheat off of when I’d get a higher grade, when my green card was going to come in (I was born in Brooklyn), or whose houses my mother cleaned.

I spoke to students who attend Specialized High Schools and people who don’t. We all share the same sentiment. We want to be surrounded by those who look like us. We want to have an inclusive community. We want to have opportunities and give them to people who don’t have them. We want to be heard.

So that the next time we go to an outreach presentation, I’m not the only person who knows.